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Escalation’s human cost: Iran’s nuclear program and rockets in the face of proposed US sanctions

Iran's pretroleum sector facilities

Iran's pretroleum sector facilities -- Source: CIA

Iran is said to have arrested an alleged Western spy in one of its nuclear enrichment facilities, the Fordo plant. This is to have taken place some two months ago, though the government has not spoken of this incident. News of this was released by Israel’s Channel 2 and elaborated by Hebrew Radio.

Times of London, on Monday, released a report based on its obtaining intelligence documents that claim strong evidence of nuclear weapon development. “The notes, from Iran’s most sensitive military nuclear project, describe a four-year plan to test a neutron initiator, the component of a nuclear bomb that triggers an explosion. Foreign intelligence agencies date them to early 2007, four years after Iran was thought to have suspended its weapons programme.”

From the same Times report: “A 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate concluded that weapons work was suspended in 2003 and officials said with “moderate confidence” that it had not resumed by mid-2007. Britain, Germany and France, however, believe that weapons work had already resumed by then.”

The publication of these documents coincide with increased pressure on Iran from Western governments, led by the US.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Ramin Mehmanparast, has responded to the Times story, reaffirming the country’s claim that the nuclear program is purely civilian. “This claim has political aims, and it is psychological warfare,” he said. Tehran Times has more on this. Beyond the Times report, the claims of a weapons program have not been confirmed, and though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed receipt of the intelligence documents it has made no ruling on their accuracy.

Middle East historian and expert on Middle East politics, Juan Cole, had in October written a salient article, Top Things you Think You Know about Iran that are not True, that addresses many of the assumptions made by the media. Cole’s article is good to keep in mind when assessing the political and security situation in relation to Iran, and it can help the reader sift through the many allegations and counter-claims between the West and Iran.

Some key points from Cole’s article:

Iran’s military budget is a little over $6 billion annually. Sweden, Singapore and Greece all have larger military budgets. Moreover, Iran is a country of 70 million, so that its per capita spending on defense is tiny compared to these others, since they are much smaller countries with regard to population. Iran spends less per capita on its military than any other country in the Persian Gulf region with the exception of the United Arab Emirates.

…Iran has a nuclear enrichment site at Natanz near Isfahan where it says it is trying to produce fuel for future civilian nuclear reactors to generate electricity. All Iranian leaders deny that this site is for weapons production, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly inspected it and found no weapons program. Iran is not being completely transparent, generating some doubts, but all the evidence the IAEA and the CIA can gather points to there not being a weapons program… While Germany, Israel and recently the UK intelligence is more suspicious of Iranian intentions, all of them were badly wrong about Iraq’s alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction and Germany in particular was taken in by Curveball, a drunk Iraqi braggart.

…Iranian politicians are rational actors. If they were madmen, why haven’t they invaded any of their neighbors? Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded both Iran and Kuwait. Israel invaded its neighbors more than once. In contrast, Iran has not started any wars. Demonizing people by calling them unbalanced is an old propaganda trick. The US elite was once unalterably opposed to China having nuclear science because they believed the Chinese are intrinsically irrational. This kind of talk is a form of racism.

Xinhua reports that the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council has called for a peaceful political solution to the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. The PGCC consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. According to the news report, “the PGCC emphasized the right of all countries in the region to have peaceful nuclear energy within the framework of international agreements, based on regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency and under its supervision.”

These same Gulf countries have together, and individually, reiterated the same point on countries’ rights to a peaceful civilian nuclear program. This may well underscore their own nuclear ambitions. Many countries in the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and North Africa already have nuclear programs or are planning to set up new ones with the help of the US, Russia, Europe, or China.

The Council officially expressed its desire to seek a civilian nuclear program after its December 2006 summit.

In 2007, the Council asked for help from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in developing a civilian nuclear program and has since had some positive response from the energy agency.

The US, under president George W. Bush, has signed nuclear cooperation agreement with a number of Council members: with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain (click on each country name to read the agreement). All of these agreements were signed in 2008, save one with the UAE in 2009.

You can read more about the nuclear programs of other regional actors in an earlier report: A swarm of nuclear deals in the Middle East and Asia

A day after the Times of London story, The US House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a sanctions bill against Iran, as a response to the nuclear program. The US Senate has still to review the legislation. According to Dawn news, “The measure would empower US President Barack Obama to effectively block firms that supply Iran with refined petroleum products, or the ability to import or produce them at home, from doing business in the United States… Because of a lack of domestic refining capacity, oil-rich Iran is dependent on gasoline imports to meet about 40 per cent of domestic consumption. Iran gets most of those imports from the Swiss firm Vitol, the Swiss/Dutch firm Trafigura, France’s Total, the Swiss firm Glencore and British Petroleum, as well as the Indian firm Reliance.”

Al Jazeera on the US sanctions bill:

Asia Times reports on the sanctions:

Americans for Peace Now (APN), which advocates for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, opposed the sanctions legislation because ”it is about sanctions that target the Iranian people, in the hope that if the people become miserable enough they will pressure their government to change course. This is a strategy that few experts believe will work, and a strategy that has a very poor track record in other contexts (Iraq, Cuba, Gaza).”

”Indeed, experience has demonstrated with sanctions like these, the most likely and immediate result will be a backlash by the people of Iran against the United States, not against the Iranian regime,” APN concluded.”

I would argue that, in general, economic sanctions have some strong similarities with blockages and sieges. During the long history of blockades and sieges, non-combatants have always been the first to suffer. This is because the defending ruling forces will always reserve the most secure position for themselves, and have first access to necessary supplies. This is simple strategic logic. Proponents of a siege often argue their innocence by claiming that the enemy has forced civilians into the front lines by taking the best for themselves. This assumes that the attacking force did not intend to gain from the economic hardship and strangulation that provides military and psychological benefits in military, economic, and political warfare. The political philosopher, Michael Walzer, references the British military historian B.H. Liddell Hart’s assertion that in the First World War the British blockade was a decisive factor in Germany’s defeat. Hart argues that “the spectre of slow enfeeblement ending in eventual collapse,” drove the enemy military to make desperate and disastrous military decisions. (Michael Walzer, 2000. ‘Just and Unjust Wars’, Basic Books, p. 160.)

On Wednesday, Iran claims to have successfully test-fired an upgraded medium-range ground-to-ground missile. Iran’s PressTV has more on the test of the Sejjil-2 missile. It claims that the “new version of the Sejjil-2 is faster during the powered flight portion of its trajectory and also during the re-entry phase. It is also harder to detect for anti-missile systems, as it is covered with anti-radar material.” It is designed to be “more efficient as it requires less amount of time for prelaunch preparations. This quality reduces the possibility of it being targeted prior to take off. According to comments made by Iran’s defense minister, Brigadier Ahmad Vahidi, the missile-launch is part of Iran’s efforts to boost deterrence capabilities.”

The announcement was made only hours after US House approved the sanctions bill, in a time of increased tension regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

AP on the missile test:

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